When I first looked at the blurb on the back and read about the Cardinals trailing the Dodgers, I was not too optimistic as I am not, by any stretch of the imagination, a baseball fan; however, although baseball runs like a red thread through the book, it is completely incidental to the main theme.
The main theme concerns a family of cotton growers in Arkansas. Cotton growing means cotton picking, and for the picking extra hands are recruited from Mexico in the south; even the hill people sign on for a couple of months' picking. The mix is not without its tension; it is the tension that creates the story.
A Painted House is narrated by seven-year-old Luke. The blurb tells us that the novel is inspired by Grisham's own childhood in Arkansas, but to what extent Grisham's experiences actually parallel Luke's is difficult to say. Luke's innocence may be meant to act as a foil to the violence unfolding around him; however, seven-year-old Luke comes across as being much older and much more knowing than one would expect of a child growing up in the early 1950s. It is unbelievable that a child of that age (and that era) would have been sexually aroused by the sight of a seventeen-year-old girl, and it is equally unbelievable that that same child would have spent time mentally trying to erase the age difference in the hope of some kind of permanent relationship a little further down the track. This is an uncomfortable discord that impacts somewhat negatively on the novel as a whole.
However, the book, like most of Grisham's books, is easy to read and does manage to retain the reader's interest. Apart from the story surrounding Luke and his family, the novel manages to paint a very believable picture of life in the cotton-growing south during the 1950s. Life is obviously unbelievably hard, and the one light point in the whole week is the cinema house on a Saturday afternoon – everything else is steeped in hard work where dreams can quickly become disappointments and where the weather is irrational and not on the side of the cotton farmers. Even service at the Baptist Chapel on Sunday mornings has an aura of 'hard work', especially for a seven-year-old boy. In the far background, the Korean War casts its own shadow over the community, also emphasizing the central theme that life is not easy.
Most people seem to accept their lot; perhaps they are so entrenched in the routines of planting, picking and disappointments that they are unable to envisage any other life. Others, like Luke's parents – his mother in particular – know that there is a better life, with better being completely relative.
The book contains humour, tension, suspense and sadness, and even though it is at times difficult to say where the line goes between reality and imagination most things in the book seem at least vaguely possible.
The photo of John Grisham is from www.washingtonpost.com